Bettany Hughes on the RA Byzantium show

From The Times

In Rimini there is a small square – the Piazza Ferrari. Here you can buy ice-creams, mooch under the linden trees, and peer down at 1,400-year-old Byzantine corpses. Excavations have just finished at the Surgeon’s House, discovered in 1989 when the piazza was being reland-scaped. Laid out on Gothic mosaics are the skeletons of a Christian community. The graves have been roughly gouged out of the tesserae, the bones are protected by crude roofing tiles. The Christians died during the turf wars of the 6th and 7th centuries – when the Goths and Byzantium both laid claim to Italian lands.

Rimini, just 40km (25 miles) along the coast from Ravenna (famous for its wonderful Byzantine decoration in the Church of San Vitale) reminds us that Byzantium – the subject of a major exhibition opening at the Royal Academy later this month – is not just about icons, gold mosaics and pretty churches – it represents a visceral civilisation, a world power whose tentacles stretched from Tripoli to St Petersburg, from North Africa to Trebizond. Byzantine control spanned a millennium. Many of our geopolitical boundaries, in the Balkans, the Middle East, Russia and Europe, were laid by Byzantine hands. Far from being an esoteric moment in art history, Byzantium is the story of us.

If you take a ferry to the Black Sea end of the Bosphorus, the last stop before Asia is a little port called Rumeli – “the land of the Romans”. Rumeli reminds us that Rome didn’t fall, it just moved 854 miles east. In AD330 the Roman Emperor Constantine – who believed that his hand was guided by God as he laid out its street plans – founded a new Christian city on the Golden Horn. Constantinople was to be the capital of the Christian east, the culmination of human civilisation on Earth.

Byzantine boundaries might wax and wane, but here was a community, God’s “chosen people”. Here we find the tussle between Eastern and Western Churches played out, a crucible of high (and low) culture, of modern administrative practice, and a ferocious champion of the genius of antiquity.

So why then is Byzantium not on every school syllabus? A civilisation that explains so much about the mixed marriage of East and West? One reason is that the idea of Byzantium is complicated: here were Romans who spoke no Latin, operating at a time when Muslims spoke mainly Greek. Here were Christians who delighted in the study of pagan texts. Even today its capital – now named Istanbul – is a mixed bag, Russian supertankers grind around the Sea of Marmara, the Turkish military fly low over sun-worshipping travellers, women in burkas shop alongside women in Chanel.

But both historically, and in terms of the history of its art, Byzantium’s complexity is our gain. The Eastern roots of Byzantium are exposed. We might think of Byzantine icons as a pure expression of Christian fervour – but compare them with golden images of Bronze Age fertility goddesses from the Hittite Empire: they are peas in a pod. The traffic of influence was two-way. Thanks to the restoration of icon veneration in AD843 (for years Byzantium, like Islam, barred religious images of the human form), the figurative genre of Western art was nourished.

In its day, Constantinople was famed as a living museum, a protector and generator of world-class artefacts, sculptures, paintings and buildings. Its treasure attracted pilgrims and pillagers in equal measure. We are lucky that the curators of the Royal Academy show have laboured to show us just some of what has survived – artworks that can transport us, and that were adored and lusted after by the medieval mind.


Lent by the Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, this icon is a plangent representation of the very real fear of eternal torment. Monks on a ladder to Heaven are being tempted and then picked off by diabolic creatures, dragged to the mouth of Hell with black chains. The Heavenly Ladder was a treatise written by St John of Klimakos (climax is Greek for ladder) in the 7th century. At a time when even the literate could struggle to understand the archaic Attic Greek that was promoted in high Byzantine society, visual images shortcircuited the story of salvation/damnation to a mass audience.


On a Christian Theban merchant’s floor early in the 6th century AD, pagan personifications of the months danced and hunters chased deer. This mosaic is the incarnation of Byzantium – a brave, new material world that looked to one God for salvation, but also drew strength from its foundations in pagan culture. Mosaic production reached exquisite heights in Byzantium, and Thebes was a regional centre of excellence.


Religion pervaded Byzantine activity, but this didn’t make life any less raw, glamorous, vivacious or charismatic. This jewellery has unknown provenance, but dates from the 7th century AD.


This tapestry from 1498 was commissioned in Russia. Moscow was the spiritual descendant of Byzantium and was nominated the Third Rome (Constantinople, the Second). There are embroidered Muscovites here, but the procession of the Icon is derived straight from Constantinople, where an icon of the Mother of God would, miraculously, appear to be weightless every Tuesday morning.


The craftsman’s skill in creating this 11th-century brazier is self-evident. Lent by the treasury of St Mark’s Venice, and in the shape of a square-planned church, it shows the influence of East and West. But it also speaks of the sensuous nature of Byzantine culture. Orthodox priests, as they do today, would have used burners to cloud holy places with incense.

Byzantium: 330-1453, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 ( 0870 8488484), from Oct 25, £12; Bettany Hughes’s series Byzantium Unearthed continues on Radio 4, Wed, 11am

Roman soldiers to set up camp in York

This re-enactment event breaks new ground, and should be worth a visit.

From The Press

Roman soldiers to patrol Minster

6:36am Saturday 11th October 2008

By Haydn Lewis »

YORK Minster will be the setting for a Roman invasion this month.

As part of the York Roman Festival, on October 25 and 26 this year, Roman military guards will patrol York Minster undercroft, where once real Roman soldiers would have stood guard.

Re-enactors will be on duty at the remains of the headquarters building in the undercroft of York Minster, where the foundations of the Principia were discovered during the 1967 to 1972 excavations that saved the Minster’s central tower from collapse.

It will be the first time in 1,600 years that Roman soldiers have been on guard there and the troops will be keen to explain the archaeological finds and remains on display to the public.

Keith Mulhearn, festival organiser, said: “To me the undercroft has always been a jewel in York’s history. Anything that helps with it’s promotion and interpretation can only be good and we are very pleased that the Minster is part of the Roman Festival here in York.

“It will be a spine-tingling moment when you meet Roman troops patrolling their original headquarters building underneath York Minster, and they will help visitors understand the real significance of what they are seeing.”

The undercroft is open on the Saturday, from 9.30am to 5pm, and Sunday, from 12.30pm to 5pm.

The Roman Festival weekend will also feature a reading of the Edict Of Milan at the statue of the Emperor Constantine outside the Minster’s south entrance in Deangate. Constantine, who was declared emperor in York in 306AD, issued the edict in 313AD to grant tolerance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

Mr Mulhearn said the festival promised to be a great event. He said: “There’ll be gladiators doing battle, barbarians, Romans, a potter, weaver, wood turner and belly dancers. Things will be kicked off on the Saturday with a march around the city centre starting at Bootham Bar at 11.30am.”

He said all the Romans based in the gardens at the living history camp would be cooking, washing and sleeping there for the duration of the weekend.

This year there will be a night-time event at the camp for which there will be an entry charge, but which will include Roman food and drink.

Howard Mosley, operations administrator at York Minster, said: “We’re really happy to have these creative guys in costume down among the physical history we have here at the Minster. They will be able to give the public their insight and knowledge about the history. We are absolutely thrilled to be a part of the festival and are looking forward to it.”

Stadium near Naples half excavated.

Possibly another place to take your eager students during your Bay of Naples trip. I’d like to see some pictures.

POZZUOLI, Italy, Oct. 10 (UPI) — The Roman stadium where Emperor Antoninus Pius staged Rome’s version of the Olympic Games will be open this weekend for the first time in almost 500 years.

Archaeologists have so far excavated half of the stadium, which was
built of volcanic rock around 142 A.D. near Naples, and was buried by
volcanic ash in 1538 following an eruption by Mount Nuovo, ANSA
reported Friday.

”Like the great Italian culture capitals of Florence, Venice, Rome
and Urbino, Pozzuoli can also take advantage of its illustrious past,
which is reflowering from the bowels of the earth,” said Pozzuoli
Mayor Pasquale Giacobbe.

In 1931, a road was built through the middle of the ancient stadium,
which complicated the excavation project, the Italian news service